Ralph L. "Skip" Boyce will never forget his first overseas posting for the U.S. State Dept. Boyce had been an assistant to the ambassador in Tehran for just 16 months when Iranian gunmen stormed the embassy on Feb. 1, 1979, trapping him and 100 others for nearly four hours before U.S. Marine guards regained control of the building. He was shaken but unhurt. Shortly thereafter Boyce was transferred to Tunis, Tunisia -- just missing the 444-day hostage crisis that started with a second attack on the Tehran embassy that November. "My first assignment," recalls the 51-year-old career diplomat. "Off to a great start."
Today, Boyce has landed in a potential trouble spot that looks nearly as dangerous. For the past 18 months, Boyce has been ambassador to Indonesia, where President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been outspoken in her condemnation of the U.S. attack on Iraq, radical Islamic students march on the embassy almost daily, and a terrorist bombing in Bali last October left nearly 200 people dead.
But Boyce has proven adept at handling -- even defusing -- the Indonesian situation. The son of a U.S. diplomat, Boyce grew up in Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Pakistan, and he served as an intern at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He returned to Southeast Asia as a senior diplomat in 1988, spending half his career in Bangkok, Singapore, and now Jakarta. Although he was chosen for his Southeast Asian expertise, he says, "when I arrived here, the fact that I had been in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan suddenly came hurtling back to the forefront of my diplomatic tool kit."
Indonesia isn't officially a U.S. ally, just a friend -- and it has become much less friendly since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In late 2001, as the U.S. prepared for that conflict, Indonesian police stood by idly during violent demonstrations while protesters shouted through the embassy gates, threatening to torch the building. Moreover, many Indonesians felt that Boyce's outspoken predecessor, Robert Gelbard, was alienating the country's leaders. Gelbard declined to comment. But the general assessment is that Boyce has the lighter touch. Boyce's "style is much more acceptable to Indonesians than that of his predecessor," says Harold Crouch, an Indonesia expert at Australia National University in Canberra.
Upon arrival, Boyce quickly set up meetings with Islamic leaders -- from moderates in the government to extremists such as Jafar Umar Thalib, a militia chief who boasts of having met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Boyce also asked Megawati for protection from the mobs assailing the embassy. Eager to gain U.S. support for an International Monetary Fund bailout, Megawati restored order. Until the Iraq war, demonstrations were disciplined and nonviolent, and Boyce made a point of personally greeting the leaders. "He has the courage and the flexibility to communicate very well with all layers of society in Indonesia," says Cornelius Lay, an adviser to Megawati.
Another one of Boyce's important roles is that of morale booster for Indonesia's American community. Boyce presides, with trenchant wit, over occasional "town meetings" at Jakarta hotels. At one such gathering, a woman asked whether the embassy would remain "open for business as usual" during the war. Boyce quipped: "Well, there's a steel plate [installed after the Bali bombing] covering my window, if you want to call that 'business as usual."' The crowd cracked up.
As the Iraq war intensifies, Boyce is hunkering down. He says he doesn't expect violent reaction to the war because the radicals have been "discredited" since the Bali bombing. Still, to protect the embassy, he wants to build a three-meter-high wall to replace a fence. "So far, so good," he sighs, rapping his knuckles on a table. The same could be said for Boyce: He has mended relations with Jakarta and begun a dialogue with the fundamentalists. He may be just the kind of envoy Washington needs to begin restoring the trust of the Islamic world.
By Michael Shari in Jakarta